Despite opposition from a coalition of current and former Hill alders, several Board of Education members and local organizers, the city’s latest solution for homeless individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 — a 75-bed self-isolation site at Hill Regional Career High School — will move forward as planned.
Mayor Justin Elicker announced the site at a press conference on Wednesday as part of a two-pronged strategy — with plans for both self-isolation and social distancing — to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus among the city’s homeless population. First, the Career High School site provides a self-isolation facility for homeless individuals who test positive for COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization. Second, to allow for social distancing, the city has worked to decompress homeless shelters by renting hotel rooms for 84 individuals as of Tuesday afternoon.
“Our decompression of shelters … is going quite well,” Elicker said in a virtual press conference on Tuesday. “The state has also, through the Department of Housing, been working to reduce the density of shelters.
“We still have not stood up the [Career High School] facility. The police department has visited the site and has a plan on keeping the site secure.”
In addition to a developing policing plan, donations of personal protective equipment will make it possible for the site to open its doors soon, Elicker said.
But Elicker’s plans for the Elm City’s homeless population have not gone unchallenged. On Thursday afternoon, Bryant Tatum, a homeless citizen of New Haven, interrupted the mayor’s daily coronavirus press briefing to ask about provisions for homeless individuals who had not tested positive for COVID-19. When Elicker responded by explaining the city’s hotel room arrangements, Tatum claimed that he had been turned away from these rooms and told that they were reserved for the elderly.
On Thursday morning, nine leaders from the Hill neighborhood — which will house the planned self-isolation site — gathered outside of the Legion Ave. high school to condemn the mayor’s location decision on the grounds that the Hill is already over-saturated with social service sites. The group included members of the Hill North Community Management Team along with alders past and present: Ward 3’s Ron Hurt, Ward 4’s Evelyn Rodriguez, Ward 5’s Kampton Singh and Ward 6’s Carmen Rodriguez. Elicker acknowledged Hill leaders’ concerns and provided an explanation for his decision: Career is a federally-recognized regional emergency shelter, meaning that the city can be reimbursed for its COVID-19-related expenditures.
“Please know that while we are concerned for the health and safety of all of our population, housed and unhoused alike, we feel that once again, the Hill is being used as a depository to address yet another risky health concern of the city that other neighborhoods would not tolerate if it was brought to their neighborhood,” Hill North Community Management Team leader Leslie Radcliffe, speaking on behalf of the team, said on Thursday.
The low-income, minority neighborhood already houses 24 in-patient treatment facilities, homeless shelters and other sites. As such, the introduction of new sites — such as the self-isolation site at Career High School — tends to draw criticism as Hill residents question why they shoulder a heavier burden for social services than do other New Haveners.
One of those social service sites, Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, announced on Tuesday that it had released all 25 of its Grant St. patients due to two COVID-19 cases. The patients have all been relocated, CEO Michael Taylor told the New Haven Independent, and homeless individuals have been placed in motel rooms. The health center has donated its personal protective equipment to the city, which will help progress the opening of the Career High School self-isolation site, Elicker said on Tuesday.
On Thursday, former Ward 3 Alder Latrice James expressed her concern that COVID-19 patients would be able to walk in and out of the Career site, endangering Hill residents. Elicker has ensured the public that the site will be monitored “round the clock” and individuals will not be allowed to leave until they test negative for COVID-19.
But some community activists believe that the stringent security measures planned for Career High School are symptoms of over-policing.
“The homeless community in New Haven has always, always been, and continues to be, harassed by police,” local organizer Vanesa Suarez told the News in an interview. “Creating a jail-like structure that is going to crowd and confine people really doesn’t make sense. None of us would want to wake up and be monitored every day and night by police — this feels like a punishment for us.”
Suarez said that she feels officials are using the current crisis — which has sparked fear and anxiety throughout New Haven — to coax citizens into trusting the police, who she believes may abuse their heightened emergency powers.
According to New Haven’s police department, the COVID-19 crisis has actually resulted in a reduced physical police presence in the Elm City. The NHPD has scaled back on various non-essential services, such as fingerprinting and purchase of police reports, and attempted to practice social distancing during their patrols by avoiding contact with individuals when responding to emergency calls and asking groups to disperse in accordance with social distancing.
New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes said last week that police would be communicating with citizens through public service announcements on a loudspeaker “to make sure people understand… the importance of us to work together to try to get through [this] as soon as possible.” Officers began this program on Monday, playing a recording of Elicker discussing appropriate social distancing behavior as they drove around the city.
In a Thursday afternoon press conference, Elicker pointed to planned security measures to contest the notion — expressed by Hill leaders that morning — that the Career site would lead to increased COVID-19 exposure for Hill residents. Rather, a self-isolation site for the homeless will make all Elm City residents safer by reducing community spread, he said.
But Ward 5 Alder Kampton Singh said on Thursday that Hill residents, even without the new Career High School site, are already at a greater risk for COVID-19 exposure given the concentration of existing shelters and the neighborhood’s proximity to Yale New Haven Hospital. YNHH set up an appointment-only drive-through testing center at 150 Sargent Dr. and has completed 1,419 tests as of Tuesday afternoon, with 16 confirmed New Haven cases.
Career’s proximity to the hospital — in addition to a well-suited gymnasium and centralized location within the city — led the federal government to designate the high school as a regional emergency shelter site following Hurricane Irene in 2011, Emergency Operations Director Rick Fontana explained at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
Career’s federal designation means that the city can expect federal reimbursement for its use — a factor that played heavily in Elicker’s decision to choose it over two other locally-identified shelter sites: Hillhouse High School and Wilbur Cross High School. Monetary considerations, in addition to the time pressures of a growing public health crisis, made the choice to locate the COVID-19 self-isolation site at Career clear, albeit difficult, Elicker said in a Monday statement.
“Choosing this location was a difficult decision, and I know some residents have concerns,” Elicker wrote. “I appreciate all the hard work our emergency responders and medical professionals are doing amidst this global health crisis, and genuinely appreciate our residents’ cooperation as we serve those who are struggling the most.”
He found support on Monday from the majority of the city’s Board of Education, which voted in favor of the Career self-isolation site. Still, BOE Member Darnell Goldson — joined by two of his colleagues — asked the mayor to reconsider his plans. Goldson cited similar concerns to those expressed by Hill leaders on Thursday, adding that the Hill is a minority neighborhood with a large immigrant population.
Several parents who attended the virtual BOE meeting echoed Goldson’s concerns, expressing their worries about increased COVID-19 exposure in the immediate future and the potential that their children would contract the disease upon their return to school. Fontana responded that the city would contract a professional crew to clean Career before it reopens, going above and beyond CDC guidelines.
Gov. Ned Lamont said on Tuesday that Connecticut schools will likely remain closed until the fall — a potential strengthening of his March 15 executive order, which closed all public schools in the state until March 31 at the earliest.
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